I have come across a couple of instances of what I would classify very loosely as addictive shopping behaviour in my dealings with people who have reached out to me for guidance. And that made me reconsider some of the ideas I had about the subject in the past. I have mentioned the learning aspect for ALL involved in decluttering on occasion, and that learning effect is not lost on the ClutterMeister himself.
I believe that one of the main reasons for the growing normality of just going out to shop as the main event of an outing is the rampant consumerism and constant bombardment with advertising through all manner of media. Just walk down the street and you’ll find yourself reading pretty much all the time: “for sale” signs, road signs, posters on the bus shelter, wall-sized posters selling the latest in cars, kitchen gadgets and clothing, shop signs, posters, writing on the pavements, newspapers, … you see it, you read it. You don’t believe me? Just make a conscious choice next time you go out and note how much stuff there is to read. We are MADE to see and read such a lot of useless junk, and that makes us very susceptible to suggestions that we do need these things. And the next time we are confronted with a choice between several products, we often choose the one we have encountered the most.
That’s how marketing and advertising works, of course. Now consider this: there is always a third choice, the choice NOT to buy something. The overload of being confronted with all kinds of things, shiny or otherwise, makes us forget about the ultimate choice: considering not to buy! Have we forgotten to ask the question if we need this at all?
Very often shopping takes the form of an activity. Personally, I don’t believe in shopping as a valid option to spend my free time. That is reserved for things like walks in nature, spending quality time with friends, enjoying food, sports, a good movie, a concert, and the like. You might reply to this “but I find that shopping with my friends is quality time for me”. You are, of course, right that this could be considered “quality time”, but it’s quality time you pay for in a multitude of ways: you will be spending money to start with, you are likely to buy a lot more things because your friends are buying things (a peer effect, not necessarily peer pressure as such), you will go into shops you would otherwise not consider visiting, and while you spend time with your friends, do you actually engage with them or are you simply doing the same thing at the same time, accidentally together? There is a difference, the same difference as sitting on the couch with your friends chatting or sitting in a cinema watching a film together: one involves engagement, the other doesn’t.
Looking at the ‘lonely shopper’ who goes out and buys for the joy of buying rather than the joy of having and keeping, there are different forces at play! Shopping as a form of enjoyment is not unhealthy in itself, in the same way as drinking, smoking and other forms of casual entertainment are not mentally unhealthy in the first instance. However, casual drinking and casual shopping have a lot in common, too: they have serious side effects when overdone and they can be addictive. We all know about the effects of over-drinking, but how about over-shopping? There is a financial side: shoppers tend to spend a LOT of money on things that are not strictly necessary (again, this is debatable, but from a purely practical point of view, most things a shopper buys are pretty much unnecessary), which will ultimately have an impact on their cash flow. There is the question of storage which – in many cases – leads to a hoarding issue with all the problems associated with that, adding to a growing element of isolation from other people once the stuff takes over. Then there is the element of slowing return: the joy derived from shopping gradually subsides and requires more regular and more extensive trips to the mall in order to keep the happiness level up.
In some circles, ownership of expensive things and regular replacement thereof is considered a sign of prestige. It most certainly is a sign of affluence and a way to show off to your peers. Have you ever heard “Oh, you still have an iPhone 6? I’ve switched to the latest one ages ago”? ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has been the pastime of the well-off for a long time (and has increasingly become commonplace even for those with limited funds), and many a household has spent money on things that showed off a wealth that wasn’t in fact there any more for spending too much on prestigious things. Sad.
These days, luckily, we attach prestige increasingly to the fact that one can do with less rather than with more. Small items are preferred, and specifically it has become more common to be envious of someone else’s experiences than their possessions. A two-week trip to the Maldives, a luxurious cruise to an outrageous destination like Patagonia or the Southern Pacific or a spiritual retreat in Bhutan come out on top of owning another new car. Having experienced a parachute jump or having participated in a Tough Mudder competition or a cheese rolling contest trumps owning a collection of bronze sculptures in the atrium of a huge mansion.
You don’t believe me? Just look at facebook and you’ll see everyone showing off where they are, what they eat, what they’ve seen, with pictures as proof positive to boot. Are we envious? You bet we are. Goal achieved. No need to buy another car, then. Those activities have another huge advantage: they don’t clutter up your attic, but they create good memories to talk about with your friends.
In many cases, shopping is a reaction to a situation that is difficult or feels impossible to manage, and shopping is a way out. On that level, shopping works like a charm as a suppression mechanism: all those things to look at, all those shiny surfaces and windows, things to touch and play with, all of them to distract from harsh reality. In a way, this isn’t any different from going to a casino with dealers in nice tuxedos, the excitement of the gamble – be it roulette or a slot machine, the joy of winning back at least a bit of what was spent, bright lights, grandiose environments, it’s a temporary escape from the drabness and helplessness of daily life.
Whatever daily life holds for you, and whichever challenges you face, you’ll have to deal with them in some way, and accumulating things on top of whatever you already own, potentially adding to a financial situation and dodging the real issue, is most certainly not the best thing to do at any point. What you need in this case is professional help to get out of that pit of despair.
The ‘Pokémon’ syndrome (catch them all!)
Many shoppers seem to be indiscriminate in their choice of things to buy, because it’s all about the buying experience and not so much about the owning. However, some are focused on very specific things, and are more concerned about completion than an actually shopping experience. For them, it’s the idea of “getting the full set” or completing something, and it’s more of a “chasing” than a “finding” situation. This urge to complete a set comes in all shapes and sizes, from a collection of commemorative spoons (leading to frequent visits to antique shows, auctions, etc.) to comic books (don’t EVER miss the new issue or you might be out of date with your collection!).
You could probably call this a hobby, but the walls between ‘hobby’ and ‘obsessive behaviour’ are particularly thin. It’s a slippery slope from wishing to own all the decks of card ever made and actually owning all decks of cards ever made…
And, as always, there are financial aspects to consider as well as the availability of space to store that collection: coins can be expensive but take up relatively little space, while life-size cardboard effigies of superheroes can be crafted on the cheap but take up a lot of space. Antique furniture, artwork, cars, and the like are both expensive and require space.
Habits develop over time
Adding insult to injury, all those aspects of behaviour tend to become habits and as such disappear into our subconscious makeup as they form. As mentioned on several occasions, habits are not bad by definition, but they need to be challenged on occasion. And that must happen before they become inseparable from our personality. Once we are used to consumerism, displacement activity, hobbies, etc. it becomes increasingly difficult to remain aware of them, let alone consider that there might be something wrong with them.
In the majority of cases, those shopping habits start out as innocent little things, they grow steadily, without us noticing, and suddenly there is a huge problem we are not even aware of because it developed in silence, and with our implicit consent. It’s only natural that we don’t see anything wrong there: we went along with it each step of the way and it seemed fine every time. Only it may not be ‘fine’ after all. Anything in moderation can be lovely, but if it takes over your life without you realising it, there is a problem!
All these behaviours are distractions from normal life, of course. And distractions create anxiety, so much so that it becomes near impossible to stop and ask ourselves what is really going on. There are a number of relevant questions to ask before you buy, like: “Do I really want this or do I only think I do?”, “Am I buying this because I want it or because everyone else has bought one?”, “How many of those do I already have?”, “Where will I put this at home?” and similar ones.
The type of question that applies to you very much depends on the reason behind your shopping habit: are you easily swayed by your friends when out shopping, is it the need to spend some money, or the feeling of obligation to spend something after walking into a shop, the need to complete a mission (maybe a collection of sorts?), or simply boredom? There could be dozens of other motivations, but if you find yourself to have a “shopper” personality and you want to stay on top of this, you’ll have to find the ones that apply to you and formulate the question to ask before you decide to buy. Obviously, this is not something you’ll figure out in one go. It’s important to stay awake, and be aware of what makes you shop, and buy, if you want to escape that vicious circle of shopping.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.